Wildfire season in the uplands reminds the public of just how much damage they can do
As sure as night follows day, as soon as the weather starts to warm up and we feel that spring might, finally, be in the air, reports of wildfires across the UK’s moorlands begin to flood in. This weekend was the worst so far this year, with firefighters across the country tackling 20 significant wildfires. Altogether, 48 significant wildfires have been reported across England and Wales in 2022.
People are starting to realise how much damage wildfires can cause. Last week, supermarkets Aldi and Waitrose announced that they would be banning the sale of disposable barbecues in their stores, in an effort to protect the nation’s forests and moorlands from wildfires.
Three weeks ago, fire crews attended three separate moorland fires on Marsden Moor in one weekend, all started by portable barbecues. This weekend, Cornwall reported their fifth gorse fire in two weeks on moorland. And this weekend on Saddleworth Moor – which in 2018 was the scene of one of England’s largest wildfires in recent history which blazed for almost a month over thousands of acres – fire crews were called out to two separate wildfires in two days.
There isn’t one sole reason why wildfires start – but they are for the most part caused by humans. Whether it’s the aforementioned disposable barbecues, a smouldering cigarette end, a broken bottle or even arson, the end result is the same.
What can be done to stop this? Well raising awareness of how easy it is for wildfires to break out – and the damage they do – is a good start, as is banning barbecues and camp fires. Cracking down on people who start them – whether accidentally or otherwise – is also a good deterrent, and serves as a warning to others. The man arrested this week on suspicion of having started a hill fire in Cumbria, for example. Or the man jailed in January for setting of fireworks on Marsden Moor, which triggered a mile-long blaze, destroying peatland and costing about £500,000 in damage and emergency resources.
But whatever warnings are put out, wildfires will always break out on moorland. The single most important thing that we can do – in addition to raising awareness of them – is to try to ensure that when they do break out, their spread is limited. This is one of the reasons why controlled burning is so important. As well as removing the dead vegetation which will be a fuel load for wildfires, it’s also used to create fire breaks – areas bare from heather, which will stop fire in its tracks as there is nothing to burn.
Despite wildfires becoming more common, and more severe, people still don't want to see controlled burning. It is seen as the enemy by anti-shooting campaigners; the tool used by those who only want to see red grouse on the moors.
The truth is, as we know, entirely the opposite. Controlled burning is a vital tool to prevent wildfires; to reduce the number that break out, and to minimise their severity when they do. The chairman of the Scottish Wildfire Forum warned in February that the risk of wildfires would be heightened in Scotland, due to landowners moving away from both keeping grazing livestock on the hills, and from practising muirburn. The question is, will anyone heed his warnings?